Starring: Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole, Bryan Brown, Art Malik
Score: 8 / 10
This review by SusurrusKarma. Trailer is below.
In what is perhaps one of the most peculiar of films to be released this year, director Toa Fraser adapts a classic book written by the late Lord Dunsany and translates it into a memorable production of dream-like perceptions. Indeed there is much to be said for a movie which revolves around hotpots, spaniels, the transmigration of souls, Thursdays and fine wine of all things, all the while telling a remarkably profound story of whimsical-like form inhabited by sternly grounded characters unaware of their otherworldly characteristics. It is a rather unique mix of the fantastic with the mundane and cynical; a study of the human spirit, and all the little frivolous things that occupy us without bringing attention to their remote significance. In that vein writer Alan Sharp makes his screenplay an insight into how the ordinary can suddenly be turned upside on its head and given extraordinary resonance. Dean Spanley is, by all accounts, a notably dry experience, but accompanied with the always engrossing performances of the central cast and a wry sense of humour present in the script, the experience like it is central character is warm and comforting behind the rather harsh shell that surrounds it.
The most remarkable of all of the movie's components is its plot, which counteracts against central character Fisk Senior's (Peter O'Toole) callous, very much close-minded approach to life. Going from happenstance to coincidence and then closely followed by an almost prophetic like relationship, Fisk's son strikes up an interesting bond with the local Dean (Sam Neill), who when under the modest influence of the rarest of wines, recalls his past life as a canine. From here on in the feature exposes its most bizarre roots, showcasing a character and story that often perplexes more than intrigues, but amuses all the same. It's certainly an interesting, and for the most part engaging narrative, but for all intents and purposes always feels like second batter to much firmer and more developed elements. This, along with a somewhat overdone conclusion forms what are perhaps the movie's only two major faults, but even then such moments are not without their inherent charm and significance to the remainder of the feature.
It is instead through the character of Fisk Senior and his relationship with his ever unappreciated and frustrated son Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) that Dean Spanley is best at documenting and exploring. As a father and a general human being, Senior is a callous, opinionated and close minded bastard; by all means he means no real harm through his stern actions -in fact through his eyes he sees himself as teaching the world a well deserved lesson- but to those around him, he remains a senile old coot not worth paying attention to. Junior is very much his antithesis, no doubt taking more of his deceased mother's genes than his fathers, and as a result the dynamic between the two is consistently engaging to watch and always palpable. Director Toa Fraser does particularly well in directing the two to be familiar but withdrawn from each other, resulting in a relationship that counteracts that between Junior and Dean Spanley.
As mentioned above however, it is within these frequent highlights of the film that only go to make the less tangible moments that exist without Senior's presence more obvious and dubious. Dean Spanley tells a fine, and notably uplifting story, but its heart and core lies within its characters that are most prominent in the forms of O'Toole and Northam. It's worth mentioning then that as the feature goes on, focus on each is given adequate balance, culminating in a clashing of the two characters' stories in a timid manner that is made all the more profound by Mr. O'Toole's performance. It's a somewhat out of place resolution, and one that seems to go against the character of Fisk Senior a little too much, but the emotional payoff that is warranted from such a shift makes up for any out of balance characterisation.
For all its eccentricities, dry humour and rich sense of character however, it must be noted that the experience of watching Dean Spanley certainly isn't for everyone. A drama rooted in classic prose, focusing heavily on character, philosophy and small nuances of psychology and life, Toa Fraser here sticks to his guns and delivers an unapologetically intelligent, cultured and insightful character study kept in check by warmth of heart and unique personality. If there is one major selling point for the feature that will allow all audiences to get something from the feature however, it simply lies within the timeless presence of Peter O'Toole who gives a wonderful performance befitting of his stature and the character in which he resides. It can be a touching, humorous and even thought-provoking experience, but like a fine wine, you're best not to get too involved here; this one's for sitting back and soaking in one sip at a time, and yes, it might be a little syrupy but it's enough to get lost in and enjoy all the same.